Interview: PETA’s Dan Matthews

“Animals are electrocuted and drowned just so that pretentious fashionistas can look like bigfoot.” — Dan Matthews

peta.jpg Dan Mathews is the vice president of PETA. His book, Committed: A Rabble-Rouser’s Memoir recently came out on paperback. It describes his entertaining adventures as a creative and passionate activist for animal rights — dressing up like a carrot to promote vegetarianism, being arrested for indecent exposure at Harvard, breaking into Calvin Klein’s office, to name a few. He will be at Barnes and Noble, Libbie Place Monday, March 17 for a book signing.

Check the bottom of the article for the full audio of the interview.

RVAnews: I know it’s been out for a while now, but what prompted you to write this book, to write a memoir at this point in your life? And what material does the book cover?

Well you know I’ve been working for PETA for 23 years and even before I started working at PETA, I always wrote, writing was always my moonlighting job, going back to growing up in the punk rock scene when I wrote a poem for a punk magazine back in L.A. and I just always did it to keep my head above water, working for charity and all. I would do offbeat columns for magazines, like for Details, I wrote a connoisseur’s guide to the world’s jails where I rate each jail for food, hospitality, accommodation based on my experience as a protester in all the different lockups. And one article sort of led to another article with different magazines having me write different columns, and finally I wrote a column for the Advocate about dressing up as a carrot to promote vegetarianism outside of elementary schools in the midwest and getting pelted with luncheon meats by kids who were given baloney from the big farmers in the area and it was just so surreal, it’s kind of like being in a Fellini movie and I got calls from publishers after saying that that looked to them like the opening of a book and that was about five years ago and so I’ve just been dealing with a few different publishers and I got hooked up with an agent and it just sort of naturally happened. Like I said, I’ve always been a writer in the moonlighting hours and so I guess a book was inevitable after a while. But it was nothing that I decided one day, “I’m going to write a book.” It was just something that grew out of my other writing.

And I’m a big fan of the genre, of autobiographies and memoirs. I’ve had a lot of very odd jobs even though I’ve been with PETA since I was twenty. You know my first job was as a dancing Christmas tree at Disneyland. I was a burger flipper at McDonalds. I was a street hustler in Rome and did stupid t.v. commercials and modeling while I was there. So I’ve seen a lot of the world and I’ve been in a lot of vulnerable positions as an activist and I’ve found myself in a lot of odd scenarios and at the same time I like to have a good time and I think the one thing I wanted to show in writing a book is that you can actually get a lot out of devoting your life to a cause no matter what the cause is, I think a lot of people see activists as having to give things up and I think you actually get a lot in return and I also wanted to show that you can have the life of an activist and not be a total fucking bore.

RVAnews: Do you want to describe one of those odd scenarios that’s in the book?

Sure, I think one of the oddest scenarios was when we decided to target Calvin Klein because he used fur and he ignored our letters and I went up to his office in New York I was able to pretend I was an intern and made friends with security and go up to his office and I actually cased the place like a thief would and came back the next day with a dozen more pretend interns and we raided the place. We closed the office down. Stickers everywhere, bullhorns and we said we refused to leave his office until he stopped using fur and there were a dozen arrests and it was all over the news and all that, and in the wake of it he agreed to meet with us and you know it was a very risky endeavor, going and raiding somebody’s office in New York, but in the end he agreed to meet with us and I showed him the video of how animals are electrocuted and drowned just so that pretentious fashionistas can look like bigfoot, and he agreed right there on the spot to stop using fur after he’d done a fur collection for fourteen years! In the wake of that, we even became friends and we’d hit the bars in New York and go out to dinner and stuff like that. And I love the idea that you can evolve as a person. I mean it’s great, I love the designers like Stella McCartney who never used fur and shuns leather and all that stuff. But I really like the people who change, the people who live and learn. You know, I’m gay and vegetarian, but I don’t only hang around gays and vegetarians. Life is much more interesting when you hang out with people who have contrary viewpoints. And Calvin certainly got off in that regard with me and as I did with him. Seeing how somebody can evolve is a real thrill. That’s one of my favorite things. I’m sitting there at this restaurant in New York during fashion week having a veggie pasta with Calvin Klein and there’s fashion editors all around saying “wait a second, didn’t he just ransack his office?” and I never imagined being in that situation. I mean, I can imagine the protest part, but how it pans out–stopping fur and us becoming friends. That was the ideal situation.

A similar situation is the Reverend Al Sharpton, who I think is a really fantastic speaker. And we were trying to figure out who we could get to narrate our KFC cruelty video, you know they boil birds alive in the defeathering tanks and snap their wings–the way they’re gathered—it’s really hideous and because KFC markets so heavily to the black community we were trying to figure out what African American figure can we get to back our campaign and urge the boycott and host the video and I ran into Al Sharpton at an MTV party in Miami. I went, “I can’t imagine you’re vegetarian, but I bet you’re against corporate cruelty and greed and there’s a lot of hideous things at factory farms that I’m sure you’d be appalled at. Would you consider hosting this video?” And he said, “I love you guys, I think PETA knows how to agitate better than anybody. I don’t get any corporate money. I think that fast food is bad for everybody, especially the black community for a lot of reasons, you know health-wise, and I know that factory farming cruelties are horrible and should be stopped.” We swapped numbers and we met in New York in two weeks and he did it. So I think to me, those exciting things . . . I’m not a purist. Of course, I think it’s thrilling when you see somebody who embraces the whole vegan lifestyle. Life isn’t so idealistic. I think that what sets PETA apart is that we are happy to take help wherever we can get it on a specific issue from somebody who can really make a difference and that was the first time KFC ever came to the bargaining table in our whole campaign against them was when Reverend Al joined the boycott.

The rest of the interview is available to listen to here:

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Andrew Jenkins

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